Limbic Capitalism

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= "a reference to the part of the brain that deals with pleasure and motivation. As our understanding of psychology and neurochemistry has advanced, companies have gotten better at exploiting our instincts for profit". [


Mary Harrington:

"A core argument of Reactionary Feminist concerns the impact on women, and on intimate and family life, of the transition we’ve made over the course of modernity first to ‘disembedded’ life, then to a consumer one. We’ve since shifted again, into what David Cartwright calls ‘limbic capitalism’, which is to say an economy oriented toward encouraging the mass pursuit of desire, irrespective of how compulsive, pathological and antisocial the form."




From an interview with the author David T. Courtwright, of the book "The Age of Addiction" , by Sean Illing:

* Sean Illing: “Limbic capitalism” is a strange phrase at the center of your book. What does it mean and why should people be aware of it?

David T. Courtwright: Well, limbic capitalism is just my shorthand for global industries that basically encourage excessive consumption and even addiction. In fact, you could make that even stronger and say not only do they encourage it but now they’ve reached the point where they’re actually designing it.


It’s a reference to the limbic region of your brain, which is the part of your brain that deals with pleasure, motivation, long-term memory, and other functions that are crucial for survival. You couldn’t live without your limbic system and you couldn’t reproduce without it and that’s why it has evolved. And yet that same system is now susceptible to hijacking by corporate interests in a way that actually works against your long-term survival prospects. That’s the paradox.

* Sean Illing: How is it hijacked?

David T. Courtwright: The short answer is that companies offer products that will produce a burst release of dopamine in a way that conditions and ultimately changes the brain and develops certain addictive behaviors, which is to say behaviors that are harmful. Now, people have always peddled products that are potentially addictive. But what’s happened in the last 100 years or so is that more of these commercial strategies come from highly organized corporations that do very sophisticated research and find more ways to market these addictive goods and services."



From an interview with Damage magazine:

"DM: You call the political-economic system that encourages addiction limbic capitalism. Could you explain what this is, and how it is different from just plain capitalism?

DC: Economists make a distinction between durable and non-durable goods. Limbic capitalism is mostly about problematic, non-durable goods. You smoke a cigarette, and it’s gone. You go to Las Vegas and drop $10,000. Limbic capitalist enterprises, whether they are licit or illicit, whether they’re supported by the government or not, are predicated on providing goods and services that produce quick hits of brain reward. And those brain-rewarding products operate on and through your limbic system, a very ancient part of your brain that deals with pleasure, motivation, and long term memory.

Limbic capitalism is enormously profitable, but it’s socially regressive. If you look at virtually any limbic capitalist enterprise, the vast majority of their revenues come from 10-20% of their customers, the heaviest customers, and especially the addicted customers. The other disturbing piece here is that they target the young. They want lifetime heavy consumers. If a person has reached the age of 25, the chance they’re going to start smoking cigarettes is very, very low. Bad habits typically form early in life, and limbic capitalist entrepreneurs know that.

There’s a chapter in the book on anti-vice activism, a transnational movement in the late 19th and early 20th century for the regulation or prohibition of certain commercial activities. They saw vice and addiction as threatening not only to the individual, but also to the security of the state. The Russo-Japanese war in the early 20th century was instructive to many observers. The Russian soldiers and sailors drank very heavily, whereas the Japanese soldiers who defeated them were quite sober. People would point to that, and say, “Well, you can’t have a nation of drunks! You get your rear end handed to you by a numerically inferior enemy, even if you’re big bad Russia.”

But in the 30s and 40s, the empire of vice struck back, of course.

DM: You say that limbic capitalism is socially regressive, but what would you say to the counterargument, “Sure, addiction isn’t great, but limbic capitalism has delivered us all sorts of pleasures right at our fingertips!

DC: Chapter 3 of the book is called “Liberating-Enslaving Pleasures.” I frankly acknowledge that there’s much joy to be had in these pastimes and products. A glass of good wine with a meal, occasionally experimenting with drugs, playing a few games on the Internet—that can all be fun, a nice break, liberating in many ways.

But the problem with limbic capitalism is that you can’t make any serious money if people only occasionally do these things. We’re in an economy that’s increasingly predicated on attention and surveillance. The logic of the system is to push consumers toward heavy consumption and, at the extreme of that spectrum, you get compulsive, harmful consumption. And that’s what the problem is: to make sustained profits, to keep your shareholders happy, you have to push in that direction."



Towards Limbic Anti-Capitalism

"Elsewhere I looked at the uncounted costs of that increasingly frank application of limbic capitalism to the intimate domain of sex relations, whether in porn evangelism, transactional sex understood as ‘empowering’, or the monetisation of male desire and loneliness via OnlyFans. And I delved into the increasingly surreal and unsettling effects of the internet’s increasingly evident function as accelerant of all limbic, desire-based forms of commerce, and hazarded a few guesses as to where we’re heading politically if we don’t change course. Lola Bunny has paywalled herself; kids’ YouTube is the stuff of nightmares; if we’re not careful our future looks like a kind of fully automated luxury gnosticism where we’ll end up ruled by robots, because we no longer believe ourselves capable of self-government.

I’ve written much else besides over the last year or so, but this is the terrain I’ll be seeking to weave into a single argument in the book. I can assure you it’s not all doom: I have plenty to say not just on how all this is terrible, but in the book I’ll also share my thoughts on how to we might try and reconstruct livable sex relations in the rubble of absolute freedom - and how this more broadly serves an urgently needed practice of limbic anti-capitalism."

- Mary Harrington [1]

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